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The UA Museum Of Art Housed A Real Treasure: Director Peter Bermingham.

By Margaret Regan

FEBRUARY 15, 1999:  FOUR OR FIVE summers ago, Peter Bermingham the artist surfaced in Davis Dominguez Gallery's Small Works Invitational. The director of the University of Arizona Museum of Art, he had contributed a deadpan fantasy of a museum in chaos.

Calling the work "Untitled (After Theodore Géricault's 'Raft of the Medusa' 1818-1819)," Bermingham painted a torrent of water spewing out of the Géricault on a museum wall. There was a dangerous, flooded moat right below the painting, but a soaked survivor was pulling himself up to the solid ground of the museum floor.

Deftly painted in acrylics in traditional style, it was a hilarious allegory of museum life, assigning the museum the role of savior. The painting was my first inkling that Bermingham was an artist himself. Until then, I'd known him only as the gentlemanly director of a museum, one that seemed to run exceptionally smoothly. And his unflappable demeanor never hinted at any fears about paintings rising up in rebellion--or in flood.

The deluge painting has turned up again in the UAMA lobby, in a new little show of a dozen or so Bermingham works full of ironic commentaries in acrylic and watercolor. In "Art, Love It or Be Shot," three artists in ranch duds frantically paint a Tucson starry night--and a stuffed bull on wheels--under the watchful eye of an armed cowpoke whose gun ensures they will not deviate from the required western clichés. Another long view of the Tucson valley, punctuated by a jaunty TUCSON! tourist billboard, pictures smokestacks way bigger than the saguaros.

There are paintings that are thank-you notes to friends, and at least one funny birthday card painting ("Ken Little Is 35" it screams in angry red letters that drip blood; it's signed "Peter Bermingham, 42.") Then there are pure landscapes, full of clouds and mountains and seas. Particularly nice are the glistening mud flats of "Low Tide, Newport, Oregon," a watercolor from last summer.

The impromptu show came together last week, within days of Bermingham's unexpected death on January 30 at the age of 61. Bermingham had had a heart attack December 20, but he seemed to be on the mend, said Associate Director Lee Karpiscak, and had returned to work part-time in January.

"He wanted to come back to work," she said. "He loved the museum."

On January 28, Bermingham collapsed in the museum where he'd been director and chief curator for almost 21 years. That heart attack was quickly followed by a third, and after emergency surgery he died in the hospital, his family at his side. The museum shut down entirely on Wednesday afternoon, February 3, so the staff could attend his funeral ("He wouldn't have approved," said publicist Alisa Schorr); but the tribute show managed to materialize by the next day.

"Everyone put that together," curator Peter Briggs said. "It was just a spontaneous thing. Both past and present staff members brought things in."

Prized by his staff for his wit and good nature, Bermingham to me was the consummate professional, unfailingly polite, knowledgeable and helpful. And endearing himself to my reporter's heart, he always returned my calls promptly. I knew him mostly by the work he produced, the changing exhibitions that had me traveling to his museum at least half a dozen times a year.

Just in calendar 1998, I reviewed the museum's Tucson's Early Moderns 1945-65, an intriguing look at the first intrusions of modernism into the sleepy Old Pueblo; water-inspired photographs and paintings by David Andres and Ann Simmons-Myers; The Last Dance, a brutal border installation by Dennis Oppenheim that featured ear-splitting radio music and swinging 3-D cacti armed with sharp nails; Robert Colescott's jazzy painted meditations on race, culture and gender; and Bailey Doogan's searing female nudes in charcoal. The UAMA had a very good year as far as I was concerned, and in my end-of-the-year arts review I awarded the place Least Staid Art Museum.

"Peter's vision was cutting edge. We'll keep doing this," said Karpiscak, who has been named interim director through June. Changing exhibitions are scheduled through the end of 2000.

Arriving at the museum from the Smithsonian, where he was curator of education at the National Collection of Fine Arts, Bermingham more than doubled the size of the UAMA collection, from about 1,500 to almost 4,000 pieces. He upped the number of annual changing exhibitions from two to 12, curating or organizing some 200 exhibitions during his tenure.

"He was a curator par excellence," said Karpiscak, who joined the museum with Bermingham in 1978. The two had joked about retiring at the same time in 2002. "He had a terrific eye, and a wonderful breadth of knowledge. He was a generalist; there are not too many like that now."

Curator Briggs agreed that Bermingham "read very broadly and had insights even from the science perspective. He read in philosophy, and last summer it was microbiology. Like a good humanist, he had a broad foundation. But he readily deferred to me in Latin American, pre-Columbian and Native American art. He didn't pretend to know something about what he didn't know."

When I interviewed Bermingham a couple years back about an upcoming glass show at the UAMA, part of the citywide glass extravaganza, he was characteristically honest. "What I don't know about glass wouldn't take up three minutes of your time," he told me. And though Bermingham had a doctorate in art history from the University of Michigan, "he disdained at all costs putting a Ph.D. or a Doctor in front of his name," Briggs said.

Bermingham's son Chris, in a funeral eulogy, disputed the widespread notion that his father was immoderately modest. No, he said, Dad would regularly sneak into the library to see how many had been checking out his scholarly books, two works on late 19th-century American landscape painting. The younger Bermingham also shared tales of a loving husband and a father devoted to his now-grown children, four sons and one daughter. Once a Scout leader, he still loved to hike Tucson's mountains, and he was an inveterate golfer who would insist that Chris, at age 12, always retrieve balls lost in the rough.

He never shirked from helping artists find their way, either. He gave shows to numerous local artists, the well-known as well as the up-and-coming, Michael Cajero, Catherine Nash, Jim Waid and Nancy Tokar Miller among them. And he was always ready to look at new artists' portfolios or pay studio visits. In the last conversation I had with him, last summer, we talked about the proposal by some downtown artists to start a new Museum for Contemporary Art on Congress Street. Bermingham was no naif: He knew the difficulties of running a museum, even with the institutional backing of a large university. But he greeted the idea with characteristic enthusiasm. And his thoughts inadvertently betrayed his own sense of what he'd accomplished at the UAMA.

Let his own words be his epitaph.

"I'd love to see what (they) propose. It's not a bad idea. The toughness of it adds to the sense of adventure. You pull it off by growing."


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